Early years. I apologise now. I’m going to go off on a bit of a rant.  It’s a subject close to my heart, so I hope you’ll forgive me, but either brace yourself, or leave it here…

Last month I left my job – a job I had really enjoyed until some recent changes, which meant that continuing to work was putting my mental health at risk and it just wasn’t worth it.  I qualified with an NVQ Level 3 in Child Care and Education in the mid 90s after leaving school and apart from a 6-year stint in a customer service role, I have worked in early years ever since.

I always wanted to work with children.  I wanted to be a teacher when I was young, but for various reasons, that didn’t work out.  However, I decided being a nursery nurse was the next best thing and that was what I did.  I was bloody good at it.  So good, I worked my way up through the ranks and have managed three settings in my time.   I went on to complete a Foundation Degree in the Learning and Development of Babies and Young Children – whilst I was working and raising two children. I was passionate; early years care is so very important and I wanted to make sure it was done right.

I love children. They are the most wonderful, complex, innocent, beguiling little beings, and I truly enjoyed being with them.  Yes, I struggled often with the fact that after having my own children, I spent more time with other people’s and that is one of the reasons I am now a stay-at-home mum.  But, to see a child grow and develop, partly as a result of the nurturing you have provided as a child carer is one of the most rewarding things you can do.  And, let’s face it, child care is not a job you do for the money.  Given the importance of the role, the financial benefit should be much, much higher, but the fact remains that it is not.  Most nurseries simply cannot afford to pay high wages, and many practitioners are on minimum wage.

So, why am I upset?

There was a story in the news yesterday about how Save the Children are calling for a fully qualified early years teacher in every nursery, whether they be state-funded, private, or voluntary.  Their report states that “a quarter of a million children are at greater risk of falling behind by the time they reach school.”  Children in private-sector nurseries are in greater ‘danger’ as nurseries attached to schools tend to employ qualified teachers anyway, so these nurseries weren’t even counted in the research.

And this is where I get on my high horse.  Although I’m no longer in child care, and, quite frankly, can’t see myself returning at any point, I still get so bloody cross when these reports come out.  I don’t disagree that having a graduate leader in a nursery can be a good thing.  They have a lot to offer; years of learning about the theory of attachment, child protection and best practice and so on.  All very valid, useful things to know if you’re running a setting.  But, what many of them may lack, and which many more of the practitioners already in settings, with level 3, 4 and 5 qualifications (and, *gasp*, even some unqualified carers!), is experience. And passion.  And a genuine love for what they do.  And knowledge gained on the job over a considerable time and with a vast amount of different children.  Some of the best practitioners I have worked with have been unqualified, but they just get it.

You see, those of us who have worked our socks off, day in, day out in settings up and down the country know that having a degree is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to being a fabulous practitioner.  We know that whilst the education side of early years is important, the care side is pretty damn crucial too.  I have seen a vast swing from care to education over my time in the business and while it is very important to monitor children’s development and pick up on anything that is amiss, the reason that many parents put their children into private-sector settings is for the care – they need to work and they need someone to care for their children while they do so.  They want to know that they are happy, socialising with other children and adults, eating, napping and having their toileting needs met. They don’t necessarily care that little Milly built a tower of seven bricks today, but missed out number 6 when counting them.  She’s two. She’ll get it soon. They probably couldn’t give a monkey’s that Sebastian can retell the story of the Very Hungry Caterpillar and count and name all the different fruits.  It’s a nice thing to be able to do, but is it because he has a genuine interest in the story, or is it because it has been read to him every sodding story time for three weeks? (And yes, this really happens.)

When my own children were in nursery, all I wanted to hear at the end of the day was that they had stopped crying after I had left them and had had a happy day.  And I trusted the practitioners to raise any concerns about their development with me because they knew what they were doing and that was their job!  And they did, and they were bloody good at it.

Of course, there will always be sub-standard settings and practitioners out there, and yes, we should be raising standards.  But this doesn’t mean we should ignore the hard work already being done by so many lesser-qualified practitioners who have so much love in their hearts for the little people they care for.  Yesterday’s report felt a bit of a kick in the teeth for me, as if I was being told I’m not good enough and any child in my care may fail. And I’m not even in the job any more, so goodness knows how it feels for others who are.

So yes, by all means, employ graduates.  How it will be funded is anyone’s guess.  Because graduates cost money. Training them costs money. Parents already pay a lot of money for their child care and won’t stand for fees increasing substantially to pay for all these graduates.  And tax payers won’t like the government spending lots on it either.  But let’s not forget all those non-graduates who are doing an amazing job already, nurturing, growing and developing our little people.  Maybe let’s invest a little more into them too so, unlike me, they don’t become disillusioned with early years and the continued belittling of excellent, hard-working practitioners and bugger off into other careers elsewhere.

Early Years: Raising Standards? Or Deflating Morale?
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